What’s the Difference Between Meditation and Mindfulness?

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Ever wonder what the difference is between mindfulness and meditation? Let’s start with the word that Wikipedia can’t even pick one modern definition for: meditation. Though the word meditation does take on different meanings in different contexts (religious vs secular vs spiritual) and I appreciate that, the Oxford Living Dictionary offers a straightforward and pretty encompassing definition that will do just fine:

“Focus one’s mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.”

So what do you do, exactly? Well, in focused attention meditation (FA) meditation, you focus your attention on something, like a candle flame. You are monitoring your concentration, or focus on that flame. If your mind wanders, you re-focus… back on the flame. You can also choose to focus on a mantra, or an affirmation. In open monitoring meditation (OM), you tap into the awareness that is below your level of thinking. So there’s a voice in your head blabbering during your waking hours (aka your thinking mind), but under that is this awesome awareness (the part of you that is aware that this voice is blabbering in your head), and by tapping into that awareness (aka your observing mind), you can observe what is going on… including all that thinking… and observe how those thoughts quiet down. The more you practice this, the less your mind wanders… until quiet! Then, even the monitoring is “left behind” and a state of “effortless presence” is achieved.

All traditional techniques of meditation recognize that the object of focus, and even the process of monitoring, is just a means to train the mind, so that effortless inner silence and deeper states of consciousness can be discovered. Eventually both the object of focus and the process itself is left behind, and there is only left the true self of the practitioner, as “pure presence.” – Giovanni, Live and Dare

The quote above comes from the article An Overview of 23 Meditation Techniques. You can pick out a technique that seems like it would be a good fit for you. And if you don’t like it, guess what? There are 22 others to choose from. Or Google… there’s always Google. Here’s a great one to start off with:

Mindful is a word that is easier to define. It’s the opposite of mindless.  Jon Kabt-Zinn,PhD, mindfulness expert, describes being mindful as:

“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

It’s all about being fully present. You can practice mindful eating, mindful sitting in a jacuzzi, mindful skipping across a diagonal crosswalk, mindful just-about-anything. There is an old Zen proverb: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” Be fully present in what you are doing in the moment.

Jon Kabt-Zinn also said “Awareness doesn’t get depressed; Awareness doesn’t get angry; Awareness doesn’t get anxious.” Mindfulness is about awareness below the level of thinking and disidentification with the thinking mind… so when you are mindful, your observing mind is witnessing everything in the moment (you are fully present), including observing your thinking mind… without judgement. The common metaphor is that your awareness (observing mind) is the sky and your thoughts and emotions are the clouds.

And adding on to my list of mindful sitting in a jacuzzi, and mindful skipping, and all the mindful things, we also have mindful mediation. You probably noticed that the above description of being mindful sounds an awful lot like focused attention mediation. Good job! Mindful meditation approaches can be open monitoring,  or a mix of open monitoring and focused attention, for example, check out a bit more about integrative body-mind training (IMBT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) here… or, for today, we can go with “mindfulness meditation” as defined by mindful.org:

Mindfulness meditation practice couldn’t be simpler: take a good seat, pay attention to the breath, and when your attention wanders, return.

It all sounds a lot the same, so how is mindfulness actually different from meditation? It’s because mindfulness practice comes in different flavors: formal mindfulness, informal mindfulness, and a sprinkling of non-meditation-based exercises, like hop scotch (all according to Steven F. Hick, though he wrote neither of “sprinkling” nor of “hop scotch”). Formal mindfulness practices include sitting meditation, body scan meditation, walking meditation, and mindful movement. These involve intense introspection, sustaining attention on body, breath, sensations, or whatever arises in each moment (choiceless awareness). Three of those four examples of formal mindfulness, were in fact, meditation (or formal meditation, if you prefer). Informal mindfulness is the application of mindful attention in everyday life, in everyday actions. For example, you may try to be more mindful when listening, or to be more mindful when eating. (My kids learned early on not to hand me food to hold… because I would eat it. Then they would come back and say “Where’s my cracker?” and I would say “What cracker?” completely oblivious to my mindless eating.)

If you find that informal mindfulness is not your jam yet, you don’t have to fret. Meditation can still have a calming effect – check out this study by Jason Moser and Andy Henion. Moser said:

“If you’re a naturally mindful person, and you’re walking around very aware of things, you’re good to go. You shed your emotions quickly. If you’re not naturally mindful, then meditating can make you look like a person who walks around with a lot of mindfulness. But for people who are not naturally mindful and have never meditated, forcing oneself to be mindful ‘in the moment’ doesn’t work. You’d be better off meditating for 20 minutes.”


The short if it (and yes, an oversimplification) is that “meditation” is generally more of a practice and “mindfulness” is generally more of a state of mind, a way of paying attention.

In practicing meditation, the state you want to achieve first (as a beginner) may be mindful one… but you will likely go through some mindlessness during the journey. To find that stillness, your observing mind will watch your thinking mind. In the beginning it may be witnessing, non-judgmentally (we hope), a “monkey mind” (a thinking mind that is jumping from one thought train to another), which is why focused attention meditation is usually recommended as the first kind of meditation to try. But as you deepen your practice of meditating,  pure being (effortless presence aka “choiceless awareness”) is achieved when the object of focus and the processes of monitoring is left behind… so this is deeper than the thinking mind and the observing mind.

In being mindful, the state you want to achieve is presence. Formal mindfulness usually means formal meditation, and informal mindfulness means being present in what you are doing. And then there are non-meditation-based exercises, which I did not get into here. In her book The Stress-Proof Brain, Melanie Greenburg, PhD, writes “Being mindful is more than meditating or focusing on your breath. Rather, it’s a state of mind…” and then goes on to characterize this state of mind as: an observing stance, slowing things down (mind in “watching” mode rather than “acting mode), focusing on the present moment, replacing fear with curiosity, openness and nonjudgment, an attitude of equanimity, and “being” instead of “doing.”

It’s interesting to me that people say “Are we having a moment?” It is interesting how rare that is. Is it because generally we have two people with monkey minds, mindlessly (to some degree) interacting? I do think this is why life passes us by so quickly. Do we get so caught up in being mindless that we don’t notice we are here? The things I remember best are the things that forced me to be in the moment, for better or for worse. My personal journey is focusing on: the more I’m “here here,” the more life I get to truly live.

Though, ironically, you can use Google to find great resources on meditation. 

Further Reading